Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8/17

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Guatimala or the United Provinces of Central America in 1827-8  (1828)  by Henry Dunn
Part III, Chapter III: Natural History, -Productions, -Physical Geography, -Rivers and Lakes, -Diseases, -Idiotcy.


Natural History,—Productions,—Physical Geography,—Rivers and Lakes,—Diseases,—Idiotcy.

Every part of the United Provinces invites the attention of the naturalist to a field, in which scarcely any investigations have, as yet, been made. In the zoological department, may be found a species of lion, without mane,—the tiger, or, rather, the jaguar,—the manati, tapir, and wild boar,—the bear, and the wolf,—monkeys of every description, liom the most diminutive of all their tribes, to the great baboon, bold and powerful enough to combat man,—stags, squirrels, and all the domestic animals, besides many others, peculiar to the country, and undescribed by naturalists.

Of the ornithology still less is known; an infinite variety of the feathered tribe, including, it is supposed, near two hundred species, found only in these parts of the New World, and comprising every order and genera, from the unclean and heavy-winged vulture, to the fairy little humming-bird, delight the eye with their plumage, or enliven the woods with their song. In the warmer provinces, serpents and reptiles infest every bush, and the entomologist, even in his chamber, may revel among specimens of every class and genus.

To attempt any thing like description of such a diversified host, is out of the question. The ferocious animals seldom leave the woods, and lakes, which they inhabit, to visit the dwellings of men. The birds most distinguished for the beauty of their plumage, are met with in the hot and unhealthy districts, and, both serpents and insects, in these situations, increase in size, number, and malignity.

In the cities, the common carrion-vulture may be seen perched upon every house, generally bending over the roof with a sensual and melancholy gaze, in search of some dead animal, upon which it descends with a heavy flapping motion, and immediately picks out the eyes, as the choicest morsel; after which, it and its fellows never leave the body till they have reduced it to the most perfect skeleton. These disgusting birds perform most faithfully the part of scavengers, and, in hot countries, where cleanliness is not regarded, probably contribute considerably toward the health of the inhabitants. In the evening, a species of bat, termed by Buffon, the vampyre, or flying dog, of New Spain, (because it sucks the blood of men and animals, while they are asleep, without causing sufficient pain to awaken them;) sometimes enters apartments which are contiguous to orange trees.—During my stay in Guatimala, I killed one in my own room, and had the opportunity of examining the mouth of the animal, through a powerful microscope.

Buffon says, “I have frequently thought it worth while to examine, how it is possible that these animals, should suck the blood of a person asleep, without causing at the same time a pain so sensible as to awake him. Were they to cut the flesh with their teeth, or with their claws, the pain of the bite would effectually rouse any of the human species, however soundly asleep. With their tongue only, is it possible for them to make such minute apertures in the skin, as to imbibe the blood through them, and to open the veins without causing an acute pain. The tongue of the vampyre, I have not had an opportunity to observe; but that of several rousettes (a somewhat different species, found only in Africa, and the southern parts of Asia,) which Mr. Daubenton has attentively examined, seems to indicate the possibility of the fact; it is sharp and full of prickles directed backward, and it appears that these prickles or points, from their exceeding minuteness may be insinuated into the pores of the skin, may enlarge them, and may penetrate them so deep, as to command a flow of blood by the continued suction of the tongue. But we can only conjecture upon a fact, of which all the circumstances are imperfectly known to us, and of which some are perhaps exaggerated, or erroneously related by the writers who have transmitted them to us.” Of the mischievous properties of this ugly and deformed animal, there can however be no doubt. To the testimony of M. de la Condamine, referred to by M. Buffon, may be added that of numerous Americans, who have seen it fixed on the neck of mules, and attacking the nostrils of man. The reasoning of M. Buffon, as to the mode in which it effects its purpose, will not hold with regard to the species found in Guatimala; since after a most careful examination, no prickles could be seen upon the tongue. The teeth are remarkably long, and smoothly pointed, and with these there can be no doubt, it opens the vein, employing the tongue merely as a sucker.

The Zorrilla a species of pole cat, sometimes approaches the houses, and emits a smell so fetid, as to be almost insupportable. I have only experienced the odour from a distance, but found it powerful enough to sicken the stomach for some hours. and abundantly to satisfy curiosity. The warrior ants, (as they are termed) are very numerous in some of the provinces. They are about the size of the common ant, red, and singularly powerful. In the order of their movements, and the regularity of their internal government, they may fairly be placed in competition with those of Africa, and like them they are eminently useful in the destruction of other vermin.

On the shores of the Pacific the conchologist will find shells of incomparable beauty, besides numerous marine substances, sponges, and lithophytes, both curious and beautiful; in short every branch of the animal kingdom of Guatimala is abundant in objects of interest.

Nor is the vegetable less productive. Of plants remarkable for their flowers or their fruits, for their roots, leaves, shape, or wood, as well as those useful for their resin, gum, or medicinal properties; perhaps a greater variety cannot be found in any part of the world. The mountains and plains are covered all the year with the most beautiful flowers expanding themselves in wild profusion, and “wasting their sweets upon the desert air;” forty genera of fruits are reckoned to grow spontaneously upon the different hills; the most valuable woods, enormous both in circumference and in height, are lost in the thick forests, and resins and balsams, with innumerable medicinal herbs, remain neglected and unknown, because no one will take the trouble of collecting them. The cedars in some parts, exceeding five fathoms in circumference, and 100 feet in height; the mahogany-tree falling little short of this immense size; the valuable Palo de Maria, and the incorruptible Guyacan, alike surrounded by immense woods of every other kind of timber, reign in silent majesty, undisturbed by the sound of the woodman's axe.

Amidst almost every production both of tropical and intertropical climes, may be named among grains, maize, producing in some parts three hundred fold, and sometimes two or three harvests a year, wheat, barley, rice, potatoes, greens, and all kinds of culinary vegetables.

Among fruits may be enumerated three species of plantains, four of apples, five of pineapples, five of peaches, three of apricots, ten of jocotes, (a kind of plum) pears, melons, grapes, oranges, figs, cherries, pines, besides about forty others, of which the name alone would convey no idea to an European ear. To these may be added, as productions of the country, bark, sarsaperilla, cinnamon, hellebore, musk, coffee, ginger, cassia, tamarinds, aniseed, Brazil wood, indigo, cocoa, cochineal, vanilla, sugar, flax, tobacco, cotton of various species, pepper, sulphur, saltpetre, and a multitude of other articles; while among medicinal plants, probably the greater part of the 1200 described by Hernandez, are to be met with in some one or other of the United Provinces.

With such an extensive catalogue of productions, Guatimala would seem destined to be one of the most prosperous and wealthy of republics. What important changes may be produced by revolving years, it is impossible to foresee, and must be left for the pages of its future history to relate. At present owing to the indolence and ignorance of its population, scarcely any thing is produced in considerable quantities, or brought to full perfection; and the country although rolling in the midst of natural wealth, remains poor, and the mass of its inhabitants wretched.

Of the physical geography of the country, as little can be said as of its natural history. No Humboldt has traversed these regions, and excepting from the statements of natives often strangely inaccurate, no account of the elevations of its mountains or valleys, or of its volcanic phenomena can possibly be collected. The mountains in some places bordering on the Atlantic, in others coasting the Pacific, and again in other situations traversing the middle of the Isthmus, give their own peculiar character to the face of the country. Upon their different elevations does the fitness of the soil for its various productions depend; and in crossing them the traveller repeatedly changes a hot climate for a cold and chilling temperature[1] Gold and silver, iron, lead, mercury and sulphur are deposited in considerable quantities within the bowels of the mountains; and granite and porphyry form their prevailing geological feature.

From these rise the various volcanic cones which have at different periods by their eruptions, desolated the lands contiguous to their craters. Besides the three peaked volcan de fuego—situated in the valley of Guatimala, which has at various periods injured or overthrown the old city, and which still emits smoke and sometimes flame;—seven others may be said to continue still in a state of activity. Tajamulco in the province of Quezaltenango, Izalco near Sonzonate, Momotombo and Mazaya in Nicaragua,—St. Vincent and San Salvador in the state of the same name, frequently cast out flames accompanied hy copious discharges of calcined substances.

Atitan, situated in one of the interior provinces, and near to the lake which bears its name, had remained for many years inactive, when, on the 1st September, 1827, a loud rumbling noise announced the working of this stupendous furnace, which immediately began to vomit out smoke and sand, in such immense quantities, as to darken the sky for several hours. Lights were procured in the neighbouring villages, and prayers offered, till its violence had, in some degree, subsided. This eruption was accompanied by an earthquake, which was severely felt, not only in the neighbourhood, but at a very considerable distance.

The rivers of Guatimala, in proportion to its extent, are considerably more numerous than those of Mexico; but excepting for canoes, they are not generally navigable; not only are they obstructed by bars at the entrance, which render it impossible for any large vessel to pass, but owing to their steep declivity, the currents are so rapid as to render it frequently dangerous to descend, and almost impracticable to oppose the stream in the ascent. The principal are the Lempa, Motagua, Limones, Tinto, Platanos, Slave River, Michatoyat, Mosquito, St. Juan, Pantasma, Xicalapa, Paza, Leones and Viejo. Of these some fall into the Atlantic, and others into the Pacific. The Lempa which is by far the largest, and runs chiefly through the province of San Salvador, has 140 yards in breadth at its lowest ebb, and a current exceedingly rapid.

Besides several small lakes, there are three which both for extent and depth deserve more particular notice. The Lake of Nicaragua well known on account of its proposed junction with the Pacific may rank among the largest in the world, and if the long wished for communication between the two oceans should be effected, will become of the utmost importance to the commercial world. The proposals of different companies have been discussed by congress, but no effectual steps have yet been taken for the accomplishment of so desirable an object. The lake of Peten according to Juarros, has twenty-six leagues of circumference, and in some parts is thirty fathoms deep; and Atitan according to the same author, covers eight leagues from east to west, and four from north to south, has its sides precipitous, in depth is fathomless, and although it receives several rivers, has no visible outlet by which the influx is carried off. The water is fresh and so cold that in a few minutes it benumbs and swells the limbs of those who attempt to swim in it. Each of these with numerous others, abound in fish of different kinds; many of them have little islands in the middle of their waters picturesquely wooded, and some of them are inhabited. On the banks of some of the rivers as well as on the shores of one or two of the lakes, salt is collected in considerable quantities, and forms in some of the provinces, a considerable branch of trade. Salt springs and sulphureous streams, both hot and cold, are found in the different provinces, and mineral waters, possessing medical properties, exude from the rocks in various parts of the country.

All these things merit the attention of the lovers of science, and make one regret that this interesting and unknown ground has not yet been occupied by some learned traveller, able to favour us with details similar to those we have received of the plains and hills of Anahuac, from the pen of the unwearied Humboldt.

The diseases of the coasts for the most part consist of intermittent fevers, which, when contracted by the inhabitants of the temperate regions, are very difficult to cure, frequently clinging to the sufferer till they produce the most perfect mental debility, and oftentimes idiotcy. The number of idiots and of individuals in other stages of madness is truly melancholy, and of these the greater part have been produced by fevers contracted on the coast. In some of the provinces the inhabitants are dreadfully afflicted with a swelling in the glands of the throat, vulgarly called “güegüecho;” these sometimes grow to an enormous size, and when accompanied by idiotcy or extreme imbecility of mind, which is by no means uncommon, they furnish a most humiliating and painful spectacle. These swellings are generally attributed to some deleterious quality in the water, and are considered by the natives as incurable. Mr. Coxe in his travels through Switzerland, observed the same disease to prevail in some districts, and remarks, that there also it was not unfrequently accompanied by extreme mental weakness. Whatever be the cause, the effect is most distressing; and although the United Provinces presented more temptations to the European than they at present do, the thought that the climate, the water, and the diseases most prevalent in the country, all conspire in lowering the tone of the mind, and sapping the foundations of man's noblest faculty, would make the most sanguine pause before choosing it as a permanent residence.

  1. Indigo is cultivated at an elevation of from 12 to 1400 feet; and cotton and cocoa flourish about the same height; the productions of the temperate zones, are found at an elevation of from 4 to 5,000 feet; wheat is produced upon lands raised from 8 to 9,000 feet above the level of the sea; and pines are found on the tops of the highest volcanoes.